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An Impressive Debut Film

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

This past March, a young, unknown British filmmaker, Gareth Edwards, debuted his first, feature-length film, Monsters, a science-fiction/horror/road movie mash-up he wrote, shot, directed, and on a micro-budget at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

An enthusiastic response from critics and festival audiences led to a stateside distribution deal with Magnet Releasing. Now, seven months and a video-on-demand release later, Monsters arrives in movie theaters with positive buzz from genre and indie fans.

Monsters is set six years after an alien life form has spread through half of Mexico. Working in conjunction, the U.S. and Mexican governments attempt to eliminate or limit the aliens’ numbers through the use of military firepower, but with limited success. The U.S. has erected a gigantic wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep the aliens in Mexico (Edwards also used Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Texas for locations). Working class and poor Mexicans have adjusted to the new reality, risking their lives every day to eke out a living, often deep in the quarantine zone.

Monsters focuses on Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), an American photojournalist, and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of Kaulder’s wealthy employer, an unnamed magazine publisher. Kaulder flits from one photo opportunity to another, the more devastating, the better the chance he’ll have of selling the photo for a hefty sum and, of course, recognition. After he gets a call from his employer to escort Wynden back to the United States, he finally agrees, but only as far as a departing cruise ship-turned-refugee transport.

Samantha never makes the trip and gets stranded in the quarantine zone, penniless and without a passport, stripped of the privileged status as an American in a developing country. The forced trip through the quarantine zone turns Monsters into a road movie and class-conscious, turbulent romance that almost always feels raw and authentic. Edwards gave real-life couple McNairy and Able, both performers capable of subtlety and nuance, the opportunity to improvise dialogue and interactions from general script directions. He ended up with more than 100 hours worth of material, eventually winnowing that down to four hours and, finally a 94-minute feature-length film.

As if writing, directing, shooting, and editing Monsters wasn’t enough, Edwards also handled the 250 visual effects shots, a slight number by Hollywood standards, but a major undertaking for a one-man production company (Edwards’ Central American crew totaled seven, including McNairy and Able, the only professional actors in the cast). Edwards used off-the-shelf software to create remarkably detailed, realistic shots of devastated cities, helicopters, fighter jets, and the Lovecraft-inspired monsters of the title.

Significantly more than just a calling card for Edwards’ talents behind the camera (in Hollywood, presumably), Monsters is an epically ambitious hybrid of genres with thematic depth and rounded, multi-dimensional characters, as impressive a debut by a filmmaker in recent memory.